Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team make difficult decision to retire from Leg One of The Ocean Race 2023

After 6 days of mentally and physically taxing racing at the front of the fleet from Alicante to Cabo Verde, the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team made the difficult decision to retire from Leg One after a breach of the rules.

Leg One of The Ocean Race from Alicante in Spain to the city of Mindelo in Cabo Verde was a one thousand-nine hundred nautical mile emotional challenge for all the sailors in the fleet.

Five foiling Imocas and six V065 ocean racing yachts left Alicante in the Mediterranean on Sunday, January 15, and were almost immediately met by boat-breaking conditions. Before the first night at sea was over the VO65 Viva  Mexico had suspended racing with a torn mainsail and made for shelter on the coast of Spain. 

The first two brutal days of racing were spent fighting a strong westerly headwind which pushed the sailors to their limits. The frequent short and steep waves of the Mediterranean constantly pounded the boat, making living onboard difficult and rest extremely hard to come by. Despite the exhausting conditions, the sailors led by skipper António Fontes kept the boat at the top of the leaderboard, swapping the lead of the race with the highly experienced team on board the VO65 Wind Whisper. 

On the second morning of the race, the fleet was setting up for the bottleneck of the Strait of Gibraltar where the narrowing of the land masses of Europe and Africa are renowned for accelerating the wind to upwards of fifty knots and this time was no different. Within the Straits themselves is the South Gibraltar Exclusion Zone, a virtual area which the boats may not enter and must be left to port.

With a 4-mile lead overall entering the Strait and the wind still firmly on the bow, a tacking battle ensued between the teams, during which time it appeared on the race tracker that the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team entered into the exclusion zone.

Once free of the Gibraltar bottleneck the racing continued into the open Atlantic where António Fontes, who shares the role of skipper and navigator, made the tactical decision to bear north-west “away” from the finish in Cabo Verde, in favour of a better wind angle which could result in higher boat speed.

A new phase of the race now kicked in. The reliable north-westerly trade winds had replaced the gruelling headwinds of the Mediterranean and the fleet was now running downwind with a nearly constant 20-knot breeze off their starboard beam. 

With Cabo Verde on their bow for the first time, the next tactical decision of the leg lay directly in their path. At over 2000m in height, the volcanic peaks of the Canary Island archipelago create wind shadows that can last up to one hundred kilometres in their lee. Every knot of wind lost at this critical phase is miles sacrificed on the leaderboard.

While Racing for the Planet went for a westerly course avoiding the islands altogether, their closest rivals Wind Whisper and Team Jajo with veteran Bouwe Bekking on board, decided to risk the shorter route and threaded the needle between the islands.

When the Canaries disappeared over the horizon the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team had moved into third place on the leaderboard, behind Team Jajo and Wind Whisper. But their less risky option had placed them further west than the rest of the fleet, which should result in a more favourable wind angle and more speed.

With few tactical opportunities left on the table now that the trade winds were in place, the difference would be decided by who had the best feel on the helm and could find the most speed by trimming the sails best.

The final 2 days of the leg were a drag race between the same three teams who had been battling for the lead since the start. Wind Whisper opened up the lead to over fifty miles at one point, while the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team found their groove and retook second from Team Jajo. During this phase of the leg the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team recorded the furthest distance sailed by a VO65 during Leg One covering 476 nautical miles in 24 hours.

Approaching the finish in Cabo Verde the final tactical decision played out as the teams who were all forced east of the archipelago by the wind angle, executed their final gybes towards the finish. When the move played out the Mirpuri boat had slipped back into third. 

As the final miles up the leg counted down it was confirmed that the Mirpuri Foundation Racing Team had breached a sailing instruction regarding the South Gibraltar Exclusion Zone and we’re deemed to not have sailed the correct course. 

Skipper António Fontes took the difficult decision to notify race control that they would be retiring from the Leg, making way for Austrian Ocean Racing to claim the final place on the podium.

Speaking at their arrival shortly afterwards António Fontes said: “That was a tough leg with some very hard conditions and very difficult tactical decisions. We couldn’t relax for a moment and I am extremely proud and impressed with how well the crew performed the entire time. We were fighting for the lead the whole leg and that means you can’t drop your guard for a moment. Unfortunately, when we realised we had not sailed the course I made the decision to retire from the Leg. 

I’m obviously hugely disappointed, most especially for the team’s sake as they worked so hard to keep us in front. But at the same time we are all very proud of the job we have done racing at the front and are looking forward to the rest of the race with renewed confidence.”

The final two legs of The Ocean Race VO65 Sprint Cup will be played out in June and July later this year and will see the VO65 fleet back on the race course for Leg 6 and 7 of The Ocean Race.

Founder of the Mirpuri Foundation and team owner commented: “I am incredibly proud of how well the team performed on this first leg. It was hard to look away the racing was so close. A lot of the team are young Portuguese rookies who we are giving an opportunity to, so to have been at the front of the fleet the whole race is an incredible achievement. I really am very proud of what they have done for Portuguese sailing with this amazing result. 

Of course, we are disappointed that we had to retire from the leg, but we win together and we lose together. We will come back fighting in the next leg later this year.”